Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Dana Costello: Myths in the Headlines

When you’re an artist pursuing a career, Utah is the type of place you leave for cities like New York, San Fransisco, or L.A. Dana Costello did just the opposite. In 1996, she left San Fransisco to pursue her art in Salt Lake City.

Costello, a California native, says that though she was considered the “class artist” she never pursued any formal art studies, which she found too “limiting.” She had a “varied liberal arts higher education” and graduated from the University of California/Santa Barbara with a BA in Sociology and Psychology. After graduating, she worked in a number of different professions but remained unsatisfied. During this time, she began to paint more regularly and felt the drive to pursue her art more vigorously.

As a result, she decided to come to Salt Lake City, where a sister was located and where she hoped to “create an economic situation in which I could live and paint more freely.” Her decision seems to have been a wise one. She remains in a home in Salt Lake City, where she keeps her studio, and paints full-time. She is represented by galleries in California as well as by Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City. In recent years, she has received recognition for her work, including awards from the Utah Arts Council and Springville Art Museum, as well as a Utah Arts Council Individual Artist Grant in 2001. In 2003, the Salt Lake Art Center gave her her first solo exhibit entitled “Territories of the Self.” Last month she exhibited at the Art Barn in a compelling solo exhibition entitled “Persephone Revisited,” where the headlines of her adopted home appeared as a central theme.

Costello is one of those rare artists who is able to develop a personal style by employing the most basic means for the maximum effect. A self-taught artist with an interest in primitive and naive arts such as medieval manuscript art, cave drawings, and folk art, she has developed a “naif” style which reveals images that can be darkly unsettling while remaining simple and emblematic.

“My influences include folk and naive arts because I respond to their honesty. I love color and form above all else. I think the simplicity found in this type of art is a very powerful visual stimulant. I also have no formal arts education, so I am able to create this type of art with little frustration”

Costello often paints on panels, modest in size, with a bare bones approach to application and composition. Her images are stylized, her backgrounds simple. Though her style may be “naif,” her themes and the erudition with which she plays with them pictorially are anything but naive.

In her recent exhibition at the Art Barn’s Finch Lane Gallery, Costello presented an insightful exhibition exploring the relationship between the Persephone myth and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping.

In this exhibit, Costello intertwined the Persephone myth with the Smart kidnapping in such a way as to reveal the “truth” — the shared human experience — of the stories we call myths. In a series of eight panels, each illuminated by a single electric candle in a dimly lit room, Costello reveals the intertwined stories in a sequential narrative. The installation of the panel pieces and the contemplative atmosphere of the exhibit creates the feel that “Persephone Revisited” resembles a “Stations of the Cross,” a result, Costello explains, of her Southern California Catholic school upbringing. Each panel is encircled by branches; panels number one and eight have leaves, while the others are dead. With the Christian associations that come with the “Stations of the Cross” layout, one quickly begins to see other parallels — the symbols of rebirth or resurrection and the imagery of a crown of thorns that are created by the branches. Costello is by no means the first to explore comparative mythology in art in this way (after all, that is the powerful nature of symbols), but her insight is to weave into these mythologies her own narrative straight out of today’s headlines.

The most exciting part of “Persephone Revisited” was that in the exhibition space itself there was no overt statement of the intertwining of the Elizabeth Smart case with the Persephone myth, so that the realization of what Costello is doing in the show comes upon one in bits and pieces, and then a sudden epiphany. I noticed the obvious Utah elements in the first couple of panels, such as a beehive and a plaque with the Deseret Alphabet. But it was only when I saw the captured Persephone, dressed in white robes, being married to Pluto that my own light bulb clicked on.

After the exhibit had come down, I took the opportunity to speak with Costello about the “Persephone Revisited” and her working methods.

SR: Central to your exhibition is the use of a myth. How would you define “myth”?

DC: I would say a myth is a narrative interpretation of one of the many, but finite collection of human experiences–a story to help us gain a perspective on an aspect of ourselves.

SR: How did the work in your exhibition at the Art Barn come about?

DC: I, like others, had been fascinated by the story of the abduction [of Elizabeth Smart] as well as the national media frenzy surrounding it. I wondered a lot about the public interest and why this particular abduction was so provoking. I had been living in San Francisco when a similar abduction occurred to a 14 year old girl named Polly Klass. Polly was also taken from her bedroom at home and the media coverage was quite intense. I remember being affected by the story in a certain personal way. The day they found Elizabeth Smart was a spring day and when I first heard the news it struck me that she was found at that time of the year and how it mirrored the Persephone myth. As I thought about it further, I saw more similarities to the myth and began to understand why the story was so compelling. I had a show coming up at the Art Barn and wanted to do something experimental, and so I decided to do a series of panels telling the story as I saw it.

SR: When you were making your series, were you focusing on the personal story of Elizabeth or more on how her story affected the community?

DC: I was very interested in both aspects. I think the community was so affected because of the strength of the collective personal effect.

SR: In your panels you seem to shift back and forth between the general and the specific. For instance, the two sisters shown in their bedroom is a very specific element of the story. The way you depict Elizabeth’s dress in the underworld after the “wedding” was striking in how well it identified her. But then you get rid of other elements of the Smart story, including whole people. We don’t see Elizabeth’s father at the reunion or Ms. Barzee in the underworld. What are the factors that drove your editorial decisions?

DC: I only created panels showing scenes where the two stories intersected. The panel with the two sisters in the bedroom actually represents a specific element in both stories. In both the myth and the Smart story there was a female witness who initially cannot tell anyone what happened but later is able to. In one version of the Persephone myth, the abduction was witnessed by a nymph named Cyane. Cyane would have told the goddess Demeter all that she had seen but dared not, for fear of Pluto. Eventually, because of her immense grief over the event she becomes a river of tears (the River Cyane). Demeter, exhausted by her search, comes to rest by the river and then is drawn to follow it. The river leads her to the underground where she discovers the imprisoned Persephone. In another version, a cave dwelling Goddess named Hekate (the veiled one), knows of the abduction, but does not tell Demeter for 9 days. Later, Hekate helps recover Persephone by providing torches to illuminate the search.

So, many of the versions have a mute witness aspect that I saw symbolically played by Elizabeth’s sister Mary Catherine. Therefore, I included her in the pictures. As I mentioned before, I was very impressed by the striking similarities between the stories. Other symbolic parallels depicted in the panels include the “marriage”, the underground dugout Elizabeth was kept in, the constant search, the Mercury-like ( Mercury is the messenger of the Gods and rules communications) communication by cellphone that sent the messages leading to Elizabeth and finally the reunion. I added in pieces of clothing and media-exposed facts and symbols of Elizabeth (blue tennis shoes, etc.), Old Utah (Beehives, Deseret Alphabet) and the original myth (pomegranates) to create a visual blend of the stories, but let the viewer know the work was alluding to Elizabeth Smart. Every panel is an intersection between the Persephone myth and the Elizabeth Smart story. I left out factors that weren’t in both stories.

SR: Has anyone accused you of exploiting Elizabeth’s story? How would you respond to that?

DC: I thought a lot about whether this project might be considered as exploiting the Elizabeth Smart story. As a result, in telling the story pictorially I tried to handle some of the more sensational details as symbolically as possible. My intention was not to create tension or provocation. What I was most interested in communicating was that the mythological stories– which come from our deep collective history– are an anthology of common human experiences. I think the Persephone myth basically portrays loss of innocence as one of it’s main themes. This theme has been explored in many myths because it is an experience had by all of us in our lifetime. I also think Elizabeth’s story was so engrossing to the public partly because of the emotional climate in the country after the events of 9/11. It mirrored the event of being invaded and robbed of a sense of security, which somewhat drove the media frenzy. In short, I felt the similarities between the stories were so compelling that they could give a sense of history and understanding to what we experience and do not fully understand. The fact that difficult subjects are often dealt with by myths evidences that inside the stories lies a deeper web of the human condition. ”

It is from this deeper web of the human condition that Costello’s work derives its power. She does not need fancy brushwork or complex compositions, because her simplified pieces create icons that connect with the personal and collective psyche. Costello’s series, “Persephone Revisited,” is a deft intertwining of myths. From the ancient Greeks to Christian symbolism to local headlines, Costello explores what it is about certain stories that speaks to the humanity in all of us.

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